At a press conference marking the opening of its new new headquarters in Forres in Scotland, start-up launch UK-based launch provider Orbex both revealed an engineering prototype its new upper stage of its new two-stage Prime launch vehicle and announced that small satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) – part of Airbus DS – has contracted with it to carry an experimental payload on the maiden flight of its Prime launch vehicle.  This maiden flight will take place in 2021.

The Prime rocket’s prototype upper stage. Courtesy: Orbex

The Orbex Prime rocket is expected to be the first UK launch of a satellite since the Black Arrow launch of the Prospero satellite in 1971.  While that flight fifty years ago was made from Woomera, this new Prime rocket’s flight will take place from the Sutherland Spaceport in Scotland.  In other words the UK can now offer both satellite manufacturing and a launch from within the UK.

However the SSTL launch booking was not the only one announced. Orbex has announced that Swiss-based Astrocast SA, has also made a launch booking – in this case a multi-launch one to launch as many as 10 nanosatellites by 2023 in support of its global Internet of Things (IoT) 64 CubeSat communications satellite constellation.

The Orbex Prime vehicle is an expendable two-stage orbit capable rocket which is designed to deliver small satellites primarily near-Polar sun-synchronous low Earth orbits.

Using a new type of carbon composite/aluminium structure, the Orbex Prime rocket is circa 30% lighter than comparable launch vehicles in the small launcher class.  Prime’s rocket engines themselves are built using 3-D printing which avoids having to use brazing and welding in many instances – resulting in a stronger engine. They use bio-propane as a fuel, a clean-burning, renewable fuel that cuts carbon emissions by 90% compared to old-fashioned hydrocarbon fuels, along with Liquid Oxygen (LOx) as the oxidiser.